DC Animated: You Just Can’t Top the Phantasm

I was on the Gotham subreddit yesterday, and someone had started a topic asking for suggestions on good animated Batman stuff to watch while Gotham was on its mid-season hiatus. Oh man, I thought, this guy’s in for a treat. I thought for sure the number-one comment would be suggesting Batman: The Animated Series. But you know what? It wasn’t. And Mask of the Phantasm was buried under a dozen under recommendations. The number one suggestion was a post that recommended, among other things, The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Under the Red Hood, and Young Justice. I couldn’t have been more surprised if they suggested Superfriends. How can a discussion of Batman animated shows not begin and end with TAS and Phantasm?

Should I be getting so frustrated at reddit comments? Probably not. But reddit comments are a somewhat representative sample of average-intelligence folk, and I don’t understand how anyone, anyone, could suggest that anything but TAS is the best animated Batman adaptation.

Specifically, I’m astounded that one redditor described Red Hood as amazing, but failed to mention Mask of the Phantasm. Phantasm isn’t just a good Batman movie; it’s a good movie movie. Phantasm can stand by itself. You don’t need to know anything about Batman to enjoy Phantasm, because it’s completely self-contained. And not only that, it tells a powerfully emotional story, fraught with twists and double-crosses, culminating in an explosive finale at a creepy abandoned World’s Fair city of tomorrow. It’s also a fact — a fact — that the Phantasm is one of Batman’s greatest and scariest villains, not just for the intimidation factor, but for the emotional challenges it represents for Batman.

Seriously. Look at this scary bastard.
Seriously. Look at this scary bastard.

It might sound like I’m dogging on Red Hood, but I’m not. I like Red Hood. I think it tells a good story about one of the Batman canon’s most interesting and damaged characters. I always had a bit of a problem with Jason Todd coming back from the dead, though. Of all the dead Batman characters to make a return, they picked Jason Todd? Did we forget that Jason died in the comics because the fans voted for him to die? They had a hotline you could call and vote for whether Jason lived or died, and the fans killed him. Nobody liked Jason Todd! His entire character was being brash and disrespectful, which for me as a reader is really annoying and uninteresting. When I heard he was coming back from the dead, my reaction was to shrug. Because I didn’t care.

Anyway, I digress. The movie itself is pretty good. It has emotional weight, since Batman is haunted over Jason’s death. The tone is pretty dark, since Joker’s grisly murder of Robin is a central plot element. But it does have a very comic book-y feel. Black Mask, Joker, and Red Hood are competing the whole movie to see who can be the most over-the-top villain, and even R’as al Ghul shows up at one point. You really need to have some familiarity with the comic storylines to get the most out of it. I prefer Phantasm because it tells a tighter, more restrained story, and focuses more on emotion and plot than action.

I’ve actually never seen Dark Knight Returns, but people say it’s really good. I’ve read the comic, so I believe them. It’s a cool what-if story about Batman at age 55 coming out of retirement to once again beat the asses of criminals. I can get behind that. But I doubt it would ever replace Phantasm as my favorite Batman animated film.

Let me come back to TAS. I guess it’s sort of hard for me to articulate why it’s so good, because for my entire life I’ve carried the idea around in my head that it’s the pinnacle of animated Batman shows. It’s like how most native English speakers can speak English fluently, but can’t articulate the difference between a clause and a phrase. To me TAS is just so unimpeachably good that I find it hard to say why. Everything about it is good. The writing, acting, and animation are all top-notch.

Young Justice is pretty good. I’ve seen a few episodes. But it’s clearly a show made for kids. There are lots of fantastic elements, the kiddos get into big trouble but somehow scrape by okay, and at the end Batman and Red Tornado express begrudging pride. TAS is also a kid’s show, but it’s a very mature kid’s show. As an adult, I can rewatch it and not feel like my intelligence is being insulted. In fact, that goes for most of the DCAU, excepting Static Shock and parts of Batman Beyond. The DCAU is about adult superheroes dealing with adult problems. It’s hard for me to watch shows about kids acting like immature idiots. I kind of think kids would rather see Batman kick ass than watch Robin make mistakes, but I’m not a kid, so what the hell do I know?

Maybe I’m just getting older now and feeling nostalgic for old times. There are new DC cartoons airing all the time, and most of them are pretty solid. I certainly don’t watch them all, but maybe I’d change my tune if I did. I kinda don’t think so, though. If there’s ever a Batman show that we can all agree tops TAS, and if there’s ever a Batman animated movie that we can all agree tops Phantasm, I’ll give everyone who reads this a dollar.

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